PARIS: European officials are confident they have averted a damaging clash among EU leaders over migration at a summit this week, but public fears of an influx into western and southern Europe will loom large over European elections next year.
By agreeing tougher rules on the temporary posting of workers from poorer countries in central and eastern Europe to wealthier western areas, EU labor ministers last week defused an explosive debate fueling anti-European populist parties.
Britain, which opposed the tighter regulations as a burden on business, plans to unilaterally limit access to welfare for nationals of poor EU states Romania and Bulgaria when curbs on their freedom of movement end on Jan. 1.
But Prime Minister David Cameron, whose coalition government is divided over labor migration, will not formally raise that issue or more radical ideas at the summit Thursday and Friday, a senior British official said.
European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters: “We could have had a confused, very politicised, polemical debate ... with a very clear east-west divide in Europe.
“The agreement on posted workers means France and its allies like Belgium won’t raise this matter at the summit. So if anyone raises the issue, it will only be Mr. Cameron on his own specific angle.”
A government report leaked to the media suggested Cameron’s Conservatives aim to cap the number of EU migrants, bar them from receiving welfare benefits for the first five years and stop even highly skilled Europeans moving to Britain without a firm job offer. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat junior coalition party, said such policies were “illegal and undeliverable.”
Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs that such longer-term ideas would figure in a planned renegotiation of EU membership terms which Cameron has promised if he wins a general election in 2015, but were not for now.
A senior German official, briefing reporters ahead of the summit, said that while Berlin agreed on the need to combat abuses, it was not willing to restrict the right to work freely throughout the EU.
“I don’t see the [German] government being a party to changing this fundamental principle of the European Union. Freedom of movement, including freedom of movement for workers, are important values,” he said.
The right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc, has warned that the country faces hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.
British media have railed against alleged “benefit tourism” despite studies showing EU migrants contribute much more to the welfare state than they receive and are less likely to claim benefits than native Britons.
Top-selling tabloid The Sun urged Cameron Wednesday to “draw a red line on immigration” at the EU summit, warning that the country would otherwise vote to leave the bloc in a referendum promised by Cameron before the end of 2017.
The last EU summit in November was dominated by the drowning of hundreds of African migrants trying to reach southern Europe via Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Embarrassed by images of capsized fishing boats, floating corpses and shivering survivors on Europe’s shores, EU leaders asked the European Commission to propose policy options to prevent such tragedies in future.
The EU executive put forward a range of plans from working with countries of origin and transit to deter illegal migration and fight people-smuggling, stepping up maritime surveillance, taking in more African and Middle Eastern migrants directly through resettlement programs and providing assistance to the south European countries under strongest pressure.
But EU interior ministers squelched the burden-sharing proposals this month in favor of stricter repression.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said EU leaders needed a coherent approach to managed migration but member states were reluctant to take in even Syrian refugees in the greatest distress.
“European leaders need to go into the election campaign with a long-term policy on migration and not leave the issue to the populists,” she said. “Some of the people voting for these populist parties are doing so because they feel there is a reluctance to talk about the issue.”
France and Germany persuaded EU partners last week to make it harder for construction firms to use sub-contractors to bring in low-cost east European workers, paying lower social charges in their home countries and displacing local workers.
France’s far-right National Front and hard-left Left Front had both demanded a ban on such “social dumping.”
Under the revised rules, the main contractor will be jointly liable for ensuring that such sub-contracted workers are paid the minimum wage in the host country and observe its work time rules.